The Chevy Volt is generating a lot of interest, and no wonder. Here's an automaker that's often been content to follow the trends, and it's suddenly coming out with a car that's far ahead of the pack. By all means visit your local GM dealer (soon to have solar electric vehicle charging) and kick the tires, but here are some critical facts to remember:
1. It’s not all-electric. There was a big hoopla on the Web about this, with angry bloggers saying that GM had “lied” when it said that the car is all-electric, all the time. But it’s really a kind of tempest in an oil can. At 70 mph, with the battery power depleted, the gas engine drives the wheels. In all other circumstances, including the first 25 to 50 miles, it is always electric. GM, which was trying to protect a trade secret, shouldn’t have been so insistent about the car being 100 percent electric, but its choice in this case makes sense and improves its overall sustainability. So don’t get your panties in a bunch.
2. Results will vary. The mileage you’ll get out of the battery pack will vary, depending on how you drive — and that’s true of all electric cars. First GM said the Volt (a four-, not five-seater, by the way) got 40 miles on the pack, then 50, then 25 to 50, but in fact you may get all of these outcomes. Nothing depletes a battery pack faster than highway driving. The Volt is probably best described as a plug-in hybrid, but there are key differences. The Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid I’m testing now just becomes a standard Prius after 13 miles of electric driving. The Volt starts its gas engine, but uses it as a generator to supply power to the electric motor — you’re still in an electric vehicle. Plug-in hybrids don’t offer many benefits to people with long commutes because most of your travel will end up on the gas engine. The Volt, with its unique drivetrain (only the Fisker Karma is similar), will thrive under such conditions and stay electric.
3. It’s not cheap, but there are options. At $41,000, the Volt is nobody’s idea of an economy car (though it will sip fuel). The best bet is the three-year, $350 a month lease, which matches the deal on the much-cheaper Nissan Leaf. You’ll need to put down $2,500 to get the lease, but that seems reasonable enough. And remember that the Volt is eligible off the top for a $7,500 federal tax credit. Is it also eligible for a $5,000 California rebate? No, because it’s not an AT-PZEV. If you don’t know what that means, join the club. It stands for Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle, and for 2011 the Volt will be only a ULEV, or ultra-low emission vehicle. But GM is promising that the car will qualify for AT-PZEV sometime in 2012, and cars after that should be eligible for the rebate (if any money remains in the state’s depleted coffers).
4. Only some of us can buy them. The Volt will roll out at the end of the year, in seven states: California, New York, Michigan, Texas, New Jersey, the Washington, D.C., area and Connecticut. Fifty-state availability is on the horizon, and GM will introduce new launch markets over an 18-month period. Nissan has adopted a similar strategy with the Leaf, and the Coda will be California only. That gives stealth electric vehicle carmakers like Wheego a chance to sell its LiFe vehicle in all 50 states for at least a year, until the big guys get there.
5. There’s no range anxiety. After the 25 to 50 all-electric miles, there are 300 more miles on tap with the generator supplying electricity to the motor. This is one of the crucial differences between the Volt and battery electrics, and it gives the Volt range comparable to any other car on the road. GM has been heavily touting this as a market advantage over cars like the Leaf, but time will tell if it really matters all that much. GM’s own studies purport to show that 78 percent of American commuters travel less than 40 miles a day. Range anxiety might fade as familiarity with electric vehicles grow, in which case the advantage might not seem as pronounced as it does now.
It would be easy to do 10 more points along these lines. Here’s a Volt FAQ to answer any other questions you might have. And here's a "How the Volt works" video to make sure it all sinks in: